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I got hit by a car about an hour ago. I was in downtown Beaverton, walking to the discount tobacconist; I was waiting to cross a fairly major arterial. A Starbucks barista (she was already in her green apron) pulled up to the light: I thought she looked like she was in a hurry, but she wasn’t moving and the walk signal had come on, so I started off the curb.
However, she also wasn’t looking, and so she started to creep up to make a right turn, whereupon she hit me at about 5 mph (had she floored it, I wouldn’t be writing this post). I rode up on the hood a little; she saw me, and stopped. My failed assassin rolled down her window and asked if I was okay; I told her I was fine, and to never do that again, although my actual language may have been slightly more colorful.
So far, no worries: although there is the cautionary example of Stiv Bators to consider, and I may be underestimating the inclination of the Starbucks corporation towards homicidal vendettas against people who criticize their products, just a reminder that cars are big and scary if you’re not in one.
My friend (friends — a girl drove up from Berkeley) had a good time in Portland, I think. We went to Mary’s Club, well-known to Portland residents as a vaguely-feminist topless bar where the strippers dance to Fugazi: I was the least depressed I’d ever been in a strip club. But the highlight of the evening was at the vaguely-leftist punk rocker hangout the Yamhill Pub, where I poured a beer out of our pitcher for a gutter-punk and he showed my friends his “Beer Change” tattoos on both arms. He told them Portland was “the city of drunkenly love”. It sure is, man, it sure is.
When I was very seriously ill I developed a very extensive typology relating ideas in “critical theory” and Marxist philosophy to aspects of the cultural world. This was partially based on perceived “implicatures” (i.e., I was merely picking up what other people were laying down), and partially based on structural “homology” between the elements of a thinker’s work and biography and some cultural item. (I think I had originally been inspired by a foreword to a Gerald Early book where Early was humorously compared to GE, but I certainly picked it up and ran with it.) Some of this was just wishful: I attempted to use bands to describe microsociological dynamics, “referencing” George Homans’ Human Group to some inhumanly aware and patient reader, but of course identifying with musical stars is perfectly natural and perfectly escapist. Music in general I equated with consciousness, a choice which has a little bit of strength to it but also a fairly great admixture of personal idiosyncrasy — however, some of the other tentative identifications of different media with different features of the cognitive world still interest me.
Movies seemed biographical, with a strong accent on finality and death (since the budget of the average movie could easily economically justify a cold body or two); and television seemed to be the incarnation of ideology, particularly as it was understood by the more “sophisticated” Marxists of the 20th century. The identification began with the material perceptive facts of television watching: the resolution and refresh of a traditional television screen did not provide a particularly satisfying image, requiring an act of imagination to “fill in” the lacking diegetic reality, just as ideology is distinguished by being rather dubitable compared to other aspects of discourse, requiring some added conviction to acquire its hold. It continued with the social and economic facts of television production and broadcasting: as a “generalized medium of communication”, television coordinates people’s behavior without consensus, but only within the limited ambit of networks centralizing and “channeling” that power. Finally, the dramatic characteristics of television programs are more akin to “broad” ideological tropes than those of theater or literature: since TV has to appeal to the “lowest common denominator”, and television programs can run for years, the themes are simple and recurrent.
A lot of people think television is terrible, and comparing it to ideology might seem to confirm that: although we are far enough away from a popular Marxism for “ideology” to have lost a lot of its power as a pejorative term, a focus on “the real truth” — the putative obverse of ideology — is still depressingly popular. But one of the things Adorno was fond of stressing was that ideology at least potentially contained a truth content; and for its part television does genuinely have the ability to entertain and edify. The way that a popular television program structures our reality, providing common points of reference that may be illuminating for the purposes of comparison with everyday life, obviously can provide mass enlightenment as well as mass distraction — and I think that’s what I was trying to get at when considering The Simpsons as illuminated parables about the Enlightenment. (Perhaps “reality” television shows are the ones that are not going to tell us the truth, though.)
I was recently rereading the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre (in translation, but it just seems wrong to call it the Science of Knowledge); although it’s certainly an interesting and important work, Fichte is not a very convincing guy by the standards of this era — and probably those of his own. All the careful work Kant does in establishing the essential order present in spatiotemporal appearances, familiar to the analytically-informed from Strawson and Gareth Evans, is tossed out in favor of a heavily voluntarist theory of cause and effect. But one thing is “sun-clear” to me: German Idealism was part of a profound revolution — not necessarily in ontology, but in the semantics of personhood. I say “part of” because the revolutions in German literature around the turn of the century were just as important as the philosophical advances, and closely intertwined with them: relatively a lot of people will know about Hegel’s carrying-on with famous writers like Goethe, Heine, and his friend Hölderlin, but all the German litterateurs of that period were very philosophical (though it probably would have helped some if the philosophers were more literary).
That’s actually a pretty uncontroversial assertion; but what might it have to do with Marx’s relation to the German philosophical tradition? Marx started out as a “left Hegelian”, and retained some key phraseology (“subject-object”, etc) into his maturity, but what does he really have to do with Romanticism and the idealist vision of self-consciousness? I think one could say that his transposition of the “expressive” power of the language of the self into a materialist theory of society takes this form: society is an expressive totality. In a manner similar to Luhmann’s definition of society as “the totality of communications” (though without its idealist tenor), Marx posits that the total workings of society form the ultimate bound of the power of the human mind to act and think in a “free” way; there can be no real Robinsonades, everything that an individual can accomplish takes the form of social praxis. Perhaps this serves as an anticipatory critique of that other legacy of Idealism pointed out by Horkheimer and Adorno, that fascist assimilation of social life to “willpower” and “resolve” which had a quite pointedly Fichtean disregard for the “non-self”.
I’ve been on a nostalgia trip for a while now, but I think it might be worth mentioning I recently stumbled onto the YouTube page for Bohemia After Dark, a television program that ran in Portland late at night from 1990 to 2003. They broadcast music videos, but mixed in with turgid ’90s alt-rock from major labels was hard-to-find footage of classic acts like X, the Circle Jerks, and Flipper, as well as the then-going-to-be local sounds of groups such as Heatmiser and Hazel. I once had occasion to talk to the program’s proprietors, a married couple, on the phone: they were nice as could be, and so I’m glad that they’re back with channels for “grunge” (featuring a great early concert by Hazel containing their cover of “Tragedy”) and punk rock (check out this live version of “White Girl“). For copyright reasons the videos can’t be embedded, but I guess you can’t have everything.
This year I had access to a university library for the first time in almost five years; that’s dried up for the time being, although I found it agreeable enough that I might try to find another way into the stacks. One thing I picked up was Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice, which is in the quite extensive category of “books I used to own” (I gave it to a very quick freshman my senior year, in the hopes that he might end up less of an analytic “jerkagon” and that I might have someone at the school who had pleasant memories of me). Back then, Bourdieu’s writing deeply influenced me without my being really able to explain what “habitus” or any of Bourdieu’s other concepts really amounted to: but upon rereading this book, I’ve come to think that wasn’t entirely my problem.
Truth be told, Bourdieu is an irrationalist, for the same reason anyone is ever an irrationalist — to try and capture the captivating yet contradictory “fine structure” of our experience of things. His observations about the failings of “rational choice” theory on the one hand and orthodox Marxism or structuralism on the other are really appealing, like Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to find a “third way” between rationalism and empiricism in psychology, but unlike Merleau-Ponty his via media is really no-man’s-land: Bourdieu’s accounts of “practical logics” attempt to capture how everyone really feels about everything by jettisoning any structuring principles that might help us understand social action at all. His theoretical categories are “aspirational”, desiderata for future sociology and anthropology rather than a normal theory having proper explanatory power: it sounds good because it’s “all what’s good”, which determinate concepts aren’t.
The story of Bourdieu’s ascent to the pinnacle of French academic life from peasant beginnings in Bearn is inspirational, and his attempt to bring working-class toughness into the analysis of French society is immensely appealing to a certain sector of the left, one I used to belong to quite whole-heartedly: people who feel like high culture is an elaborate scam which functions only to perpetuate social misery. But Bourdieu’s self-confessed biases towards that very same high culture really should tip off the pop-cultural leftist to what is obvious if one considers the cultural practice of the most seasoned and effective socialists: ideals, including those of beauty, are an essential “leavening” for the process of successful social agitation. The socialists and Communists Bourdieu mocked for being stodgy yet over-optimistic “got” something he could afford to ignore.
Bourdieu’s theoretical aspirations reinforce an “aspirational leftism”, which seeks to know just how bad it is (exceptionally dashing to have a “negative theodicy”, you know) without having any theory of how it might be better; he once called photography “a middlebrow art”, but any gauche bourdieusienne is going to be the very definition of middlebrow — useless to the rich and poor alike.
My best friend from college is coming to visit Portland for a conference; in honor of the occasion, I think I’ll discourse about what I have planned for him — drinking coffee and beer, both of which all of Cascadia has a serious psychological, physical, and emotional dependence on. Though this be the homeland of Starbucks, only a sap would get caught patronizing the scaly lady; I am sap enough to drink cafeteria Starbucks and the occasional 8 oz. “short” coffee (unlisted on the menu, but available at every US location) if I’ve been given a gift card, but when I have a choice it’s gonna be something else. If it’s got to be a major chain I’m rather partial to Peet’s for their crank-case oil: my mother tells me stories about being subjected to the fug of over-roasted coffee smell emanating from the very first Peet’s below her apartment in Berkeley, but it suits me fine. I am also enamored enough of most things Portland to find Stumptown beans pretty appealing — I’m not as fond of the French-press method they use to brew the coffee in the Stumptown cafes, but independent operators that serve it drip style (like Cafe Ono near Portland State, where X and a dollar really will get you a cup of coffee) are quite nice. My new favorite has to be the Boyd’s near the downtown Safeway, though: the long-time foodservice champs put a foot in the ass of “premium” coffee in three different roast strengths.
I drink way less beer now than I used to: would that I could say something similar about coffin nails. But I haven’t given up completely on the stuff. A useful analogy for patterns of West Coast beer consumption would be to two opposite strategies in Monopoly: the “high road” of buying Park Place and Boardwalk and gradually building them up, or the “bargain basement” approach of buying Baltic and Mediterranean and putting hotels on them almost immediately. There is a lot of quality beer to go around in Portland, since it has almost as many “breweries” as Munich: the wheat beer Hefeweizen and India Pale Ales are the local standbys, but the myriad brewpubs get very inventive to try and draw crowds. However, these days I find myself at the other end of the spectrum, the “value price” beer available for $2 a pint or less (in Oregon we also have the very civilized drink size of the half-pitcher, just enough to get pleasantly drunk). Pabst Blue Ribbon’s adoption by hipsters in Portland and elsewhere is legend, but I think it’s terrible: I would much rather drink Hamm’s, the traditional cheap beer of the Northwest from Minnesota to McMinnville. (The “middle range” of Oregon beer, once rather incompetently occupied by Henry Weinhard’s — although they did fill a sector of downtown Portland with a wonderful hop smell — is currently empty, although I do enjoy a can of Rainier or Olympia from time to time.)
If I am going to talk about New Frontiers I suppose I’d better come up with examples: and with respect to music this is easy, since there has been a very marked turn-over in the content of hip-hop radio in the last few months. Even if you haven’t been inside a discotheque, well, ever, the borrowing from club music is obvious: when it started the DJs joked about breaking out the glow sticks, but it’s the dominant sound of the present. I’m not sure how well I really like it: I heartily appreciated Pitbull’s “The Anthem“, which extensively appropriates “Calabria 2007” by Enur and the late Natasja Saad, but I like Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” a lot less than his earlier “trad” material, and whether I think Ray J’s “Sexy Can I” is a genuine achievement depends on my mood (although I’m not tired of listening to it yet).
Interesting developments. But I think I’m going to let my prejudices show by embedding a hot live performance of “There Was a Time”:
“On or about December 10 1910 human nature changed”, Virginia Woolf once said. You can feel something like that in the air today: things are changing in the United States. The signposts of the decade, the endless war on terror and the various defensive postures adapted as a way of coping with that fundamental elision of the Republic’s promise, are still legible enough; but something new, different, and better is beginning to articulate itself. We could look for obvious “models” for this, such as the once-surprising success of Barack Obama — but Obama is canny and reflective enough to tell us that he has been in many respects simply “in the right place at the right time”, and it’s true: these changes are not the doing of “great men”, they are the work of tellurian forces restructuring our society.
Thinking about where we are going requires seeing how we got where we are; here, to a very first approximation, is the story I can tell about that. Just as many of the features of the new security state somewhat predated 9/11, many of the cultural hallmarks of the time we have been living through got started earlier, at the end of the ’90s. Burnt out on the irony and “cultural relativism” (another word for often-unsuccessful attempts at a genially democratic bohemianism) which dominated that decade, young people started to look for “better” ways to live. “Better” in all ways, including those matters of “distinction” in matters of taste that Pierre Bourdieu so carefully and grimly chronicled; the populist gesture was defanged, “revealed” to be driven by a mixture of intellectual incompetence and personal inadequacy.
Consequently, we have been living in an era dominated by people who feel no need to “give the people what they want”: smug, overconfident self-promoters who live “above” the overly equalitarian practices of factual accord and “agreeing to disagree”, as the superrich are said to live “above” Mexico. For the better part of this decade it seemed like these people were only going from strength to strength: if you never brook any criticism, what’s to break into your worldview and change it at all, or raise doubts about what you’re doing? Honestly, only a social revolution could save us; but, though it surprises me no end, it seems like that is what is on hand. How can this be? Well, like the last go-round, the very young will ultimately have their say about the overall tenor of the times: and, knowing and liking people in their very early twenties, I see these are not their values.
How so? Well, in a very socially material way their situation partially parallels that of those of us who grew up in the ’90s, reproducing some of the same phenomena, yet on a different level. The cool ’90s guy (and for a lot of purposes, it had to be a guy) would scavenge through a “long present” of popular culture, mixing and matching things from the ’30s to the ’70s. This was partially dependent on your material access to “cool” stuff articulating an aesthetic response to this cultural panoply; if you couldn’t get at zines and indie-rock CDs, you were out of luck. But now almost anyone (that can afford broadband Internet) can have access to an even wider array of past items, and so the kids are recapitulating ’90s culture in kind of a “microtonal” fashion: the newest stuff out of Web 2.0 is even more radically democratic than a Seattle window-smasher in 1999.
Whether or not Obama captures the flag, you really should expect something different from the years to come.
Well, that didn’t last long. Since the stuff that floated to the top of a Google search for my name (all the time, baby) was even lamer and more alienating than what I’d been saying, and I’ve received assurances that janitorial service companies and suchlike won’t care anyhow, I’m resuming the blog. I expect the contents will be a little less “composed” and more Everymannish: I can’t guarantee there won’t be cat pictures. But, as always, I hope there’s a value beyond me listening to the sound of my own keys clicking.